Wine Reviewing: Drawing Up A Plan

Yorkville cellarsI think I'd be a pretty good wine reviewer. After 20 years of tasting wine regularly and with a certain cache of knowledge in the subject of wine, and given my propensity to be able to focus intensely on a matter, and, finally, having a certain confidence in my writing that allows me to compose rather quickly, I am certain I could act as a responsible and useful wine critic.

Yet I don't. The reason is pretty simple: My day job consists of representing wineries and wine related companies in public relations and marketing matters. It seems to me an obvious conflict of interest to review wines that may be the product of competitiors of those I represent.

This is something I've explained a number of times here at Fermentation over the past seven years. Yet I still receive samples on a fairly regular basis. Today I sent an email off to the folks at Yorkville Cellars in Mendocino County who were kind enough to send me three samples of their organic wines. I thanked them for the samples, explained my position and suggested that in the future they deliver the sample to another more likely to review their wines, though I assured them I would share the wines with wine lovers when they are opened so that they get as much exposure as possible.

Yet for some reason, I got to thinking upon writing to the Yorkville folks just how I would approach wine reviewing if I chose to take up the task. It's a questiion many in the blogging world have given consideration to.

My approach, I think, would be pretty basic:

1. Each review would include alcohol level, production level, the date the wine was bottled, a link to where it could be purchased, and the date that I reviewed the wine. These issues of fact seem to me most important for those considering purchasing a wine that they've not tasted before.

2. I would review as many wines as I could possibly get down my gullet. Offering the occasional review might be interesting, but it's not the kind of format that inspires devotion by readers and wine lovers.

3. Reviews would consist primarily of a description of the color, aroma, taste and overall impression of the wine all in the context of other wines of a similar sort (varietal and appellation and vintage). The basis of my evaluations would be hedonistic.

4. I would rate the wines using a 100 point scale, making sure that even wines I find deserving of only 50 points were published. I believe a proper critic is responsible for explaining what they don't like as well as what they like. Each illuminates the other. As for the 100 point system, it is familiar, easy to understand and the most commonly used system that allows my reviews to be easily set aside other reviews of a similar system.

5. I would email the wineries whose wines are the subject of my reviews immediately upon publishing them. It's a courtesy I think would be appreciated.

6. I would, whenever possible, publish a picture of the label. It's nice touch.

The Yorkville Cellars wines would have been a fun set to review. I was sent a Semillon, a Carmenere and a blend of all the approved Bordeaux varieties. All the wines produced come from the winery's certified organic estate located in the tiny Yorkville Highlands appellation in Mendocino County on the road to the Anderson Valley. Yorkville Cellars is one of those somewhat obscure wineries that one has to either discover after driving by or specifically desire to visit. Finally, the wines are particularly well priced for being made in very small amounts. Nearly all are under $30 per bottle.

I have always believed and continue to believe that wine criticism is not merely a noble pursuit, but a pursuit every bit as justifiable as art criticism and food criticism. I view it as sub genre of wine writing. I stand amazed at those such as Jim Laube, Robert Parker, Jr., Steve Heimoff, Jancis Robinson and the others wo so consistently produce reviews of 1000s of wines each year. Not only are they capable of stuffing so much good information into a small note, but they have done so over such a long period of time without any decline in their ability.

My hope is that serious wine reviewing by professionals never dies.

30 Responses

  1. Jeff - February 24, 2012

    Wow Tom, impressed by the restraint. Excellent post, as always. Feel free to send those samples out here to me!

  2. Mr. Freeze - February 24, 2012

    A link for purchase cuts against the reviewer’s credibility. The reader will probably assume that an affiliate program is in place, and will probably be correct. I know that this just seems like good business to many (“Why should I leave money on the table?”).
    Additional information that I would like to see is some transparency on the details of acquisition. Solicited sample? Unsolicited sample? Winery visit? Purchase? This would be far more interesting, to me, than ABV or case count. (At least both of those can be covered in just a few characters.)
    These issues of fact seem to me most important for those considering purchasing a wine based on a review penned by a relative unknown, with relatively unknown motivations.

  3. Tom Wark - February 24, 2012

    Well, I’m assuming I wouldn’t be unknown. Ha Ha Ha. Beyond that, I’d have no problem indicating how the bottle came my way. I”m just not sure what could possibly be reasonable assumed from knowing this.
    Finally, I never thought about the idea of selling those links to where the wine could be bought. Nice. Income! However, I really wouldn’t care too much what the person thought about the link to purchase being there.

  4. wine of month clubs sparkling - February 24, 2012

    Now that’s what I call a dedicated wine reviewer! We’d have an even better wine world if all wine bloggers held themselves to your standards.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - February 25, 2012

    “Income! However, I really wouldn’t care too much what the person thought about the link to purchase being there.”
    Among the rules of journalism ethics is to avoid even the appearance of interest conflict. The above attitude fails that test.

  6. Tom Wark - February 25, 2012

    How I came to taste a wine isn’t an important factor in determining my credibility or honesty any more than wondering how a film critic got into the theater is a factor in determining their credibility. However, I’d have no problem creating a little symbol in my reviews to let people know how I am across the wine: P=paid for. If there is no “P” then I didn’t pay for it. That’s all the really matters, isn’t it?

  7. Edward - February 25, 2012

    Regarding wine reviews, a main point not addressed is whether the wine would be tasted blind or not. My guess is that wineries with the right addresses in the top appellations strongly linked to a varietal, would like you to know it. And all others likely would not believing they’re more likely to get a fair shot.

  8. Tom Wark - February 25, 2012

    Good point. I think I figured it went without saying. It would always be single blind.

  9. Mr. Freeze - February 25, 2012

    Honesty is completely up to the reviewer, and I won’t second-guess it, absent evidence to the contrary. Credibility is another matter; the reviewer doesn’t get to dictate credibility. The reviewer’s actions contribute to his or her overall credibility with readers. So do his or her opinions.
    When it comes to the actual tasting upon which the review is based, how, where and (especially) why are relevant. This is less true for me the more I get to know a reviewer.
    Knowing the reviewer only comes through evaluating the reviewer’s opinion of experiences that the two of you have in common, whether it is a book, a performance, or a bottle of wine. Eventually you will be able to identify those whose tastes agree with yours, those whose tastes do not agree with yours, and those who have no taste.
    Being known for something other than reviewing wines doesn’t give a new reviewer much of a head start on credibility in reviewing wines (the current state of affairs in the blogosphere notwithstanding). There are no shortcuts.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - February 26, 2012

    When a reviewer links to a buying site, or runs a contest that is sponsored by suppliers of products that he or she may review in the future, has reviewed in the past, or reviews alongside the contest, credibility is dead.
    Admittedly, I am an old-fashioned style journalist who takes the responsibility seriously and does not view journalism anything close to promotional or public relations activities.
    On the subject of taste and reviewing that Mr. Freeze brings up: if criticism/reviewing is simply a matter of aligning with someone else’s preference rather than pointing out the flaws or strengths of the product, the role of critiquing isn’t only limited, it’s banal.

  11. Tom Wark - February 26, 2012

    Ok Thomas. I’ll bite.what exactly is implied in a link by a reviewer to a retail site or supplier site that presents credibility issues. Would something less be implied if the link went to the Winesearcher site that provided links to a variety of retail outlets that carried the wine under review. If not or if so, why?

  12. Thomas Pellechia - February 26, 2012

    Yes, something less is implied by linking so that the consumer sees the wine available in multiple locations.
    That said, I don’t see why a reviewer is compelled to link to any retail site. Why do you feel that way?
    The task is to review the wine.
    You should be in on some of my back and forth with newspaper editors 😉

  13. Tom Wark - February 26, 2012

    I’m not sure I’d be “compelled” to provide purchase info. However, since I can and since it’s a value add to the reader and because the wine under review is unlikely to appear out of thin air for the reader, an easy link that allows the next step if they so choose seems like a nice service.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - February 27, 2012

    You’ll likely never agree–but I don’t think a review needs to extend into a buying service–again, to reduce the risk of appearance of conflict.
    What is so hard to understand about that?
    Are Internet savvy consumers too dumb to find the wine themselves, to use Google, to go outside to their retail shop and, well, shop?
    My last words on the subject…as it’s clear you simply can’t see the simplicity of the conundrum, no pun intended.

  15. Tom Wark - February 27, 2012

    Morning Thomas,
    You are no doubt correct that a reviewer need not be a buying service also. Nor do they even need to point folks to where the wine can be purchased. And I agree that the appearance of a conflict of interest is something to be avoided.
    My view is that it’s necessary to weigh the potential for appearing conflicted with providing readers with a value added service and see where the scale tips.
    One thing you have convinced me of is that it’s a much better idea to point readers to a “Wine-Searcher” type service, than a specific store. In my view, there is simply no conflict of interest in doing this. Further, I think the appearance of a conflict of interest is far greater when a reviewer is given a bottle of wine, versus them buying it. But even this, in my view, presents even a bare shadow of an appearance of conflict of interest.
    My last word to….For now.

  16. Tom - February 27, 2012

    I find that newspaper wine reviews, especially in local papers, are considerably less effective without information on where you can purchase the wines reviewed. Not everyone who reads a wine review in the local paper will go to Snooth or Wine Searcher to find the wine of the week, but a customer might remember the store name and go in to ask for the wine.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - February 27, 2012

    Tom, the other one, not you Work:
    FYI: When I operated a retail shop, I know of a reviewer who never left his apartment, accepted wine from my shop by telephone, reviewed the wine, and mentioned where it could be bought.
    I did it because I wanted mention of my shop in the newspaper.
    Why did the reviewer do it?

  18. Tom - February 27, 2012

    Mr. Pellechia, maybe the reviewer might have done it because he genuinely wanted people to try the wine? It’s also a way to help build readership because if people try them and agree with his assessment, they might pay more attention to his reviews. I don’t think either one represents a conflict of interest.
    Do you think he had a more selfish motive of wanting to keep you in business so he could keep getting wine from you with little effort on his part?
    In the Washington Post, Dave McIntyre gives importer/distributor/retailer/restaurant info. I know people appreciate finding out where they can get the wine locally, otherwise he’d be fielding e-mails and phone calls asking him about it.

  19. Thomas Pellechia - February 27, 2012

    Knowing the reviewer, and knowing that the person never once set foot in my shop, I have to believe the part about
    “little effort.”
    As for people who can’t figure out in the 21st century how to locate a particular bottle of wine, which runs the gamut from “Google it” to, heaven forbid, “ask your retailer,” what can one say? 😉

  20. Rusty Gaffney MD - February 27, 2012

    It is very difficult to separate yourself from a winery when you review their wines. On the one hand, it makes sense to taste blind since you have no preconceived ideas, but on the other hand, you have no advanced worthwhile information that might guide you in evaluating the wine, particularly about how it was crafted and where it came from. Anyone that thinks it is easy to review wines consistently and fairly is uninformed. You probably are wise to have taken the safe track

  21. Tom Wark - February 27, 2012

    What if the reviewer, thought not knowing the producers, has a blind line up of all 2010 Pinots, all from, say, Anderson Valley. Wouldn’t that be enough to do the evaluation without concern that your information is too limited?

  22. Pamela Heiligenthal - February 27, 2012

    Tom W – You’re hired. When can you start providing reviews (from producers you don’t represent) on Enobytes? 🙂
    Thomas P – I provide “buy” links to help consumers find the products we review. I don’t do it to make money (we receive pennies for a lot of extra work) rather, we do it out of courtesy and to go the extra mile to help the consumer. If you think this is a conflict of interest, so be it. Prior to including this information, we used to get tons of emails asking where to buy reviewed products. I’m all for helping the consumer.

  23. Pamela Heiligenthal - February 27, 2012

    Funny – right after posting the above comment, I tweeted a recent review. A follower responded asking if the wine was available in Texas:
    available in TX? “@enobytes: unoaked, crisp clean chardonnay >> 2009 Pomar Junction Santa Barbara County California Picnic Chardonnay
    This happens frequently and I’ll go the extra mile to help the consumer–either by locating the distributor if the “buy” link doesn’t return expected results. Maybe going the extra mile to help a customer is a model not many critics are willing to embrace? Personally, this is how I roll.

  24. Thomas Pellechia - February 28, 2012

    What about the word “appearance” don’t you understand?
    I never said that critics actively have a conflict of interest. If you read all my comments you might see where I talk about journalistic standards and the “appearance” of conflict.
    I know that journalistic standards don’t matter much these days, but I still assume that some of us are capable of understanding what we read.
    By the way, I happen also to be a wine consumer. I wouldn’t dream of contacting a critic to find out where I can buy a product, and since you haven’t read what I posted about that subject, I’ll re post it:
    As for people who can’t figure out in the 21st century how to locate a particular bottle of wine, which runs the gamut from “Google it” to, heaven forbid, “ask your retailer,” what can one say? 😉
    Maybe critics ought to change diapers, too–that would be a great service. 😉

  25. Pamela Heiligenthal - February 28, 2012

    Changing diapers? Um, no 😉 But seriously, my ideals are basic, in fact, transparent and I think the push model (writing a review and throwing it over the fence) is dying a slow death. Does this mean I’m cancelling my subscription to WS? Hell no. I enjoy the content and unlike most young’ns I enjoy something tangible in my hands. However, the appearance is that consumers want interaction, whether it is with a critic, winemaker or retailer. This is a huge culture shift where technology comes into play—consumers are seeking connections and trying to build relationships with the brand. Companies that are orienting toward seeking connections in a targeted way seem to have the most promise. I think the shift of contacting a critic for more information is (or should) change. Old media that doesn’t embrace this new model might be left in the dust—but the good news is that we are seeing more interaction and engagement with critics via social media platforms which is really cool. As for people who “can’t figure out in the 21st century how to locate a particular bottle of wine”, I’m surprised you haven’t come across all of the lost souls. This is reality. I’m a dinosaur embracing a new model for the sake of helping consumers and I think we all need to be a little more accommodating. Is it in a critic’s job description? Hell no. But the unwritten rule will dictate the success factor—which supports what I stated earlier, to orient towards the connection with the consumer. Thoughts?

  26. Thomas Pellechia - February 29, 2012

    First, you must know that I have been through a few so-called information revolutions, and so you mus also forgive my cynicism on the subject. In the end, each had boiled down to marketing and promotion at the expense of valid information.
    Now, my thoughts:
    “…the appearance is that consumers want interaction, whether it is with a critic, winemaker or retailer.”
    Then go to the retailer and ask for the wine.
    “…consumers are seeking connections and trying to build relationships with the brand.”
    I know of two ways to do that: establish a relationship with the winery; drink the wine.
    “…we are seeing more interaction and engagement with critics via social media platforms which is really cool.’
    I’m trying to understand how that interaction makes the wine taste.
    “I’m surprised you haven’t come across all of the lost souls.”
    I did, when I operated my own winery, then when I operated a retail shop, rather than to introduce them to brands, I’ve always tried to educate about wine.
    It’s clear that Enobytes and I are on different pages, but don’t worry too much about that, as I am a dying breed, as you so aptly allude to–but we have now drifted far away from the subject of Tom’s post.

  27. Tom Wark - February 29, 2012

    Pam & Thomas:
    You both should know that you are welcome to use this forum to go as far off topic as you determine is necessary to fully explore this and peripheral issues. I enjoy reading the discussion as others I’m sure do also. Just no blows!

  28. Thomas Pellechia - February 29, 2012

    Tom, Tom: you know that I am a loud pussycat.

  29. Pamela Heiligenthal - February 29, 2012

    Tom W – I penciled in your start date of June 1st. Clear your calendar for onboarding 🙂 JK.
    Thomas – MEOW, Meow, meow, meowww…lets go have a drink.

  30. شقق للبيع في الاردن - May 9, 2012

    I think I figured it went without saying. It would always be single blind.

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